11th June – Messy Methodologies 

Messiness is something that most of us are brought up to avoid, and certainly as a quality not particularly revered. At some point I realised that, for the most part, I am a ‘messy’ kind of person: messy room/office/desk; messy thoughts/ideas/approaches; messy hair…. Whilst I enjoy a good clean up of all these things occasionally, at some point I’ve come to accept that fighting it constantly will be exhausting and counter-productive.

So, when I read John Law’s ‘After Method: Mess in social science research’[1] , it was not revolutionary, to me research has never really been about ‘non-mess’/ strict, linear, objective methods, and I can thank some forward thinking lecturers, teachers and colleagues for their patience/ encouragement for that, but it was an important reminder which also nudged me towards being open to a broader range of research encounters. I readily adopted his notion of ‘gathering’ bundles of relations: coherent and incoherent in a ‘methods assemblage’. Though perhaps this was becoming a convenient excuse for messy thinking, I was perplexed that all the complicated thoughts and ‘head mess’, when straightened out and tidied up, boiled down to a simple list of the normal: interviews, focus groups, field diary.  Of course, such ‘simple’ sounding methods hide far more complicated processes, logistics, subjectivities, values, decisions; but I have also been trying to cultivate a more observant and open attitude to the other, less formal, research encounters and my own role in all of this ‘data collection’ I am doing.

Where am I going with this? Well, today I feel like some form of synchroncity stepped into the research arena and resurrected an element of the project I had almost put to bed. On the flip side there have been times when shear bad timing or luck has prevented research encounters. This led me to wonder whether others had written about luck, chance, spontineity and research before (I didn’t turn much up there, but I am sure something is out there). I did come across this excellent paper from Billo and Hiemstra [2] on, guess what, messiness and PhD fieldwork! For any PhD students out there (or researchers in general), I urge you to read it. Very useful advice and is a really positive example of how far things have come since Law’s call, in terms of being more open, honest and reflexive about the processes of research: from planning, through fieldwork and afterwards.  Both Billo and Hiemstra were faced with difficult challenges in ‘the field’ which meant a reassessment of carefully made plans. They expand on the notion of flexibility, embodiment and reflexivity in research based on those experiences. Music to my ears!

Realistically, I may be comfortable with mess, flexibility, reflexivity, subjectivity etc etc, but it doesn’t stop me worrying about whether the choices I am making, all the time, are the ‘right’ ones, for the PhD, for the research participants, for Svalbard, for the world, for my ‘career’…. but rest assured I am at least thinking about it!

[1] Law, J. (2004) After Method: mess in social science research, London: Routledge.
[2] Billo, E. & Hiemstra, N. (2013) ‘Mediating messiness: expanding ideas of flexibility, reflexivity, and embodiment in fieldwork’, Gender, Place & and Culture, 20(3), pp.313–328. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/0966369X.2012.674929#.U5ioW3b4Lwo


Picture

Mess: quite a hot topic in Svalbard. What is valuable cultural heritage, what is junk, who should clean up what? Well, this little bit of mess made me smile (taken 17th May mid ice-melt).

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